The San Antonio Spurs are now up two games to one over the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, and after watching Danny Green and Gary Neal steal the show in Game 3, it’s pretty evident why.
The answer? Value.
The Spurs may not have LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, but they’ve managed to take a 2-1 lead in the series by way of some less heralded contributors. Certainly, San Antonio has its own trifecta of future Hall-of-Famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, but if you’ve been paying attention to the Finals, you know that it’s guys like Green, Neal and Kawhi Leonard that have made the difference. But this should be no surprise at this point. After dominating the league with one of the longest dynastic runs in NBA history, the Spurs routinely make their way to the final stages of the postseason with a loaded roster, leaving the rest of the league to ponder how exactly they managed to combine so much skill on a single team.
The answer?...You guessed it.
Value. Year after year, the Spurs serve as a model franchise for how to improve when it appears there’s little opportunity for growth. After all, when you win four (soon to be five?) championships in 15 seasons, how much better can you get? Well, considerably it turns out. Consistently selecting at the very back end of the NBA Draft, San Antonio has found talent where others have not, and utilized it to maintain a talent level that has gone relatively unmatched across the league during their run. So while Duncan and Parker will likely get the majority of accolades and MVP talk, it’s quite plausible that the main reason for their continued success is the supporting cast that surrounds them.
As the Warriors have turned their own fortunes around recently, particularly this most recent season, it appears as if Golden State has taken the San Antonio model to heart. After all, when you take a hard look at the current roster, you begin to realize that the vast majority of recent success can be attributed to players that have been drafted by the team within the last few years. In what has become an increasingly star-driven league over the last several years, the NBA Draft is arguably more important now than ever before. While the Heat have proven that a team can accomplish the highest goal in the NBA behind a collection of superstars acquired via free agency, the current status of the NBA Finals is evidence that very few teams can achieve prolonged success using that method. Rather, when you look at the best teams in the league today, particularly the ones that appear best staged for success over the next five to 10 years, it becomes increasingly evident that homegrown draft picks, not high-priced free agents, are the way to go when attempting to build a contender. Lucky for Warriors fans, it appears as if Golden State understands that message loud and clear.
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green. That’s almost half of the Warriors’ current roster that has been added to the team via the draft over the last four years, three of which just completed their rookie seasons. When you consider how far the Warriors advanced with the composition of their roster, the word “value” leaps off the page. After all, rookie contracts are far more cap-friendly than the inflated ones of high-priced free agents. Some of the Warriors’ young core was available by pure luck. This is to say that they were available at the Warriors’ slot due to some combination of oversight by the teams drafting ahead of them and the over-valuing of players drafted ahead of the Warriors’ picks. In other cases, the Warriors identified talent in areas that other teams overlooked, and pounced on the players when the opportunity presented itself, sometimes even repositioning themselves within the draft in order to do so. In either case, a few consistent themes come to light. First and foremost, you’re not going to go anywhere in this league if you can’t identify talent. That actually is the easy part. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that understanding how to acquire that talent in a manner that will best compliment the current roster is the absolute best way to induce a team turnaround, much like the one the Warriors have undergone in recent years. That part…not so easy. In fact, if it were, every team would be competing for the championship each year, but as we know, that simply is not and cannot be the case.
At this point, most NBA fans know that the Warriors have done well for themselves in the draft these past few years. That much is clear, but if the draft were the only method to add young talent at affordable rates, it’s unlikely a team such as the Spurs could maintain such a prolonged level of competitiveness, as there simply would be other teams in better position to capitalize on the annual influx of rookies. So while getting lucky and understanding how to best position your team within a draft to acquire desired prospects are two absolutely crucial keys to draft success, the opportunity does not end there. As evidenced by one-time undrafted free agent Gary Neal’s breakthrough with the Spurs, as well as numerous other quality players around the league, finding players that slip through the cracks of the draft can be just as important as the draft itself. After all, the bottom line is adding talent to a roster. It doesn’t necessarily matter where or when that talent came from.
This past season it was Kent Bazemore. Before that, there was Reggie Williams, C.J. Watson, Kelenna Azubuike, and a guy by the name of Jeremy Lin, who you may have heard a little about at some point. All of those players were acquired and added to the Warriors’ roster after not hearing their name called during the 60 picks of the two rounds that comprise the annual first-year player draft. And while (other than Bazemore) none of those players are still with the team today, that doesn’t discount the value of finding a diamond in the rough. Besides Azubuike, who has dealt with injuries since his trade to New York in 2010, the other former Warriors mentioned above have gone on to star on other teams, so obviously the Dubs have identified undrafted players that belong in the Association. It’s not an exact science by any means. The players that get selected in the draft are selected for good and very deliberate reasons, and the ones that fall out typically have some sort of shortcoming or stigma to validate their non-selection. But there are so many players out there and so few spots for them, talent is bound to be available within the undrafted free agent pool on an annual basis. It’s just about identifying the right prospects.
The Warriors have done that, and if Kent Bazemore’s progression from undrafted free agent to Summer League star to bench celebration leader to on-court contributor is any indication, the process is not over yet. Much like the Warriors as a whole, he still has plenty of room to grow, and there will continue to be opportunities to improve and add new ingredients to the mix. For the team, some of that will come via the draft, but much of it will come through other means. In an offseason such as this in which the Warriors are without a single draft pick for the first time in team history, that latter reality becomes even more vital.
We do not yet know how the Warriors’ roster will change from this past season to the next, but this much is clear: The Warriors will pursue every opportunity to improve the team, and will do their due diligence on any and all those who they view as being capable to contribute and provide a skill the roster currently lacks or simply needs more of. It’s always possible the team could acquire a pick in the upcoming draft one way or another, but regardless, it’s important to understand that roster improvement is a constant and ongoing process, regardless of whether or not the circumstances make it appear so.
While it’s not as if the Spurs were the only ones with a value-based strategy all these years, they’ve simply proven themselves as one of, if not the very best at applying it. It’s evidenced by the team that is currently two victories away from winning yet another league championship, and the Warriors have been very smart to adopt and employ a similar philosophy. And while nobody can scoff at the progress the team has made in recent years, it’s important to remind ourselves that, much like roster management, the process is not over yet, nor will it ever be.
Improvement is a perpetual exercise for every team in the league. But it’s the ones that find value where others do not or cannot that separate the contenders from the pretenders. If the Warriors maintain their recent track record, who knows, it might not be too long before there’s a new sheriff in town.